In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saints’ Lives

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Editions of East Norse Saints’ Lives (Collections)
  • Editions of West Norse Saints’ Lives (Collections)
  • Editions of East Norse Saints’ Lives (Individual Saints)
  • Editions of West Norse Saints’ Lives (Individual Saints)
  • Translations of East Norse Saints’ Lives
  • Translations of West Norse Saints’ Lives

Medieval Studies Saints’ Lives
Natalie M. Van Deusen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0328


Saints’ lives (Latin vitae, sg. vita), also referred to as hagiographies (from the Greek hagios ‘holy’ and graphia ‘writing’), formed one of the most important literary genres in the European Middle Ages, and constitute a substantive portion of those texts composed in medieval Scandinavia. Medieval Scandinavian saints’ lives can be categorized as East Norse (that is, Danish and Swedish) and West Norse (that is, Norwegian and Icelandic). In both East and West Norse, these works comprise translations from imported foreign (primarily Latin) sources, as well as works produced within Scandinavia in both Latin and the vernacular, which refers to the language spoken by people living in a particular region. The composition of saints’ lives began shortly after the Christianization of the Scandinavian countries, which began during the 8th century and was completed by the 12th century. Indeed, saints’ lives were among the very first works composed in the vernacular in Scandinavia. The majority of the surviving manuscripts containing saints’ lives written in the Scandinavian vernaculars of the Middle Ages come from medieval Iceland and, to a lesser extent, Norway. In Iceland, the lives of saints played a key role in the development of vernacular saga literature, on which hagiographic texts had an ongoing influence throughout the Middle Ages. Saints’ lives from Denmark and Sweden were generally composed in Latin, though there existed translations of select lives as well as larger legendaries—that is to say, collections of saints’ lives—in both the Old Danish and Old Swedish vernaculars. Within the East Norse tradition, by far the largest number of natively produced saints’ lives are associated with St. Birgitta of Sweden (d. 1373), and can be connected to canonization efforts. Also of particular interest throughout the Nordic region were the lives of saintly bishops, dukes, kings, and other noblemen and noblewomen, which comprise the majority of the lives of Scandinavian saints and saintly individuals. The production of Latin and vernacular saints’ lives continued throughout the Scandinavian region and up until the Protestant Reformation, which took place during the first half of the 16th century and was completed by 1550, when Lutheranism officially took hold in Iceland.

General Overviews

There are several key works that provide general overviews to the vernacular lives of the saints in medieval Scandinavia. Gad 1961 is an important guide to the legends of saints from medieval Denmark. Kristjánsson 1988 devotes a chapter of a survey of Old Norse-Icelandic literature to hagiography, and provides an introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas of saints and apostles, with a focus on stages of writing and key stylistic features. Cormack 2000 and Cormack 2005 are both important and useful introductions to and surveys of the sagas of saints from medieval Iceland.

  • Cormack, Margaret. “Sagas of Saints.” In Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Edited by Margaret Clunies Ross, 302–325. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    This chapter traces the development of hagiographic literature in medieval Iceland, from translations from Latin to the production of sagas of saintly Icelandic bishops. Miracle accounts are also treated.

  • Cormack, Margaret. “Christian Biography.” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Edited by Rory McTurk, 27–42. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    This chapter provides an overview of Old Norse-Icelandic saints’ lives, that is to say, saints’ lives from medieval Iceland and Norway. The primary focus is on the development of translated and natively composed saints’ sagas from Iceland.

  • Gad, Tue. Legenden i dansk middelalder. Copenhagen: Dansk videnskabs forlag, 1961.

    A work in two parts, treating both legends of the saints in the broader medieval Christian tradition and in medieval Denmark more specifically. Both Latin and vernacular legends of saints from Denmark are discussed.

  • Kristjánsson, Jónas. Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature. Translated by Peter Foote. Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 1988.

    This important and comprehensive survey of literature from medieval Iceland, composed originally in Icelandic. It contains a chapter entitled “Hagiography. Saints’ Lives,” which traces the genre’s development in Iceland, and situates sagas of saints within their larger literary context.

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